Global Times (24 December 2017) – Given its prominence to China’s Belt and Road initiative (BRI), South Asia has long been a topic of economic, political and cultural discussion. Recently, the region was again thrust into the media limelight following the Doklam standoff between China and India, US President Donald Trump’s advocacy of the concept of “Indo-Pacific,” Nepal’s elections and Sri Lanka’s handing over the Hambantota port to China. To what extent will Sino-South Asian people-to-people exchanges help boost Beijing’s ties with the region? What should be done to enhance educational, cultural and religious collaboration between the two sides? Officials and scholars shared their views on these matters at the Sixth China-South Asia Cultural Forum – China-South Asia People-to-People Exchanges under the BRI in Chengdu, Sichuan Province last week. The forum was co-sponsored by the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries and the Institute of South Asian Studies, Sichuan University.
Leela Mani Paudyal, Nepalese Ambassador to China
China and South Asia have intensive cultural links for thousands of years. Cultural resources are the most precious property of humankind which lend identity and pride to the people who possess them. Cultural affinities are the strongest binding forces for societies and a means of understanding people. Cultural products are major factors in tourism promotion.
Nepal and China have been connected by culture, geography and history since ancient times. Cultural links are the fundamental pillars of our bilateral relations. In the 62 fruitful years of diplomatic ties with China, relations have developed with utmost sincerity, goodwill, mutual respect and understanding based on the UN charter and five principles of peaceful coexistence.
China respects Nepal’s sovereign rights and does not interfere in our internal affairs. Nepal also resolutely abides by the one-China policy and respects China’s core interests. Beijing has provided generous support for Kathmandu’s socio-economic development without imposing conditions, which is unlike assistance we received from other countries. China’s support to Nepal is very valuable to us.
China is truly a global economic powerhouse, which vests in it an important role in promoting world peace, development and stability. Chinese President Xi Jinping unveiled a two-stage plan to make China a “great modern socialist country that is prosperous, strong, democratic, culturally advanced, harmonious and beautiful” by mid-21st century, at the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China. This is an opportunity for countries like Nepal.
Both Nepal and China are willing to advance their relations to a new strategic height by sincerely increasing collaborations under the framework of the BRI. In the six-plus decades of diplomatic relations, we have laid a solid foundation for deepening neighborly relations. Close and friendly relations between Nepal and China benefit not just the two countries, but also all other nations in the region.
Naveed Bokhari, Pakistani Acting Consul General in Chengdu
Traditionally, cooperation between two or more countries or regions is focused on economic, commercial, financial, military and strategic factors. Cultural cooperation, on the other hand, is assigned the intangible supportive role, providing underlying strength to ties between countries and in the process aiding other more tangible forms of cooperation.
This traditional definition and role of cultural cooperation is now being challenged. Creative industries, which are deeply rooted in local cultures, are emerging as important pillars of economic growth and adding a new dimension to economic cooperation between regions. This aspect adds much more depth to the concept of cultural connectivity in the context of the Belt and Road initiative, which not only focuses on bringing economic prosperity for billions of people across continents but also strives to build bridges between cultures and civilizations.
Pakistan and China share a very special relationship. The two countries have a very long history of contacts – a history that dates back to many centuries and is rooted in the ancient silk route. The trade route is also a medium for exchanges of ideas, thoughts and cultures. Chinese monks and envoys such as Xuan Zang and Fa Xian frequently travelled to Pakistan in history. These contacts laid down a solid foundation that helped Pakistan and China to transform this harmonious friendship into an all-weather strategic cooperative partnership.
Pakistan-China relations stand as a perfect example for the world, where people with different cultural, linguistic and religious backgrounds have established strong brotherly ties. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor is a flagship project under the BRI that has given a new impetus to Islamabad-Beijing relations.
All of the above is just a glimpse of what actually is happening on the ground. But there is still a lot of room for further strengthening cultural and people-to-people contacts between Pakistan and China, especially in the context of tapping the economic potential of such exchanges.
Yang Siling, vice director and research fellow of the Institute for South Asian Studies at the Yunnan Academy of Social Sciences
Since the Belt and Road initiative was put forward in 2013, China has achieved progresses in infrastructural collaborations with countries along the route. But there are still suspicions over the initiative. Some interpret the BRI from a geopolitical perspective and are skeptical of Beijing’s intentions in pushing forward the initiative.
This suggests lack of research on the BRI’s economic returns. In addition, power politics still prevails. Western countries cannot understand China’s idea of building a community with a shared future for humanity, and some scholars even argue that China is using the BRI as a tool to seek hegemony. Major countries are actively touting their policies in the region. For instance, the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor advocated by Japan and India and Trump’s Indo-Pacific strategy are an attempt to counter Beijing’s expanding presence in the region. This will jeopardize China’s BRI cooperation with countries along the route.
Moreover, internal political struggles of countries in the region may hamper the construction of BRI projects. For instance, Sri Lanka’s political upheavals have tremendously affected China’s investment programs there. The BRI may also be sacrificed for regional countries of strategy of striking a balance among big powers. Take Nepal as an example. The country postponed a Chinese-invested hydroelectric project earlier to court India. Since China is all for peaceful development, it does not intend to force countries who decide to break away from the BRI projects.
To address the above, more efforts should be made to intensify studies on the BRI’s economic returns. In addition, as China is still a developing country, its excessive investments may not sustain in the long run, and is also likely to trigger dissatisfaction domestically, of which the Chinese government should be aware. Authorities should also keep a close eye on the political trends of countries along the route, and prevent the BRI from being victimized for political struggles.
Mahendra P. Lama, senior professor with School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, and an expert with the Institute of South Asian Studies, Sichuan University
The Himalayan region has a long history of trade routes. Trade routes have actually led to pilgrimages, and vice versa, because pilgrimage is one of the most effective instruments for people-to-people and trade changes in the region. There were many famous trade routes that have actually created pilgrimages across the Himalayan region, for instance, the Kathmandu-Lhasa trade route. In the meantime, key pilgrimage centers were spread across the whole region.
People-to-people contacts are embedded in the connections between religious institutions and have contributed to diversity. In the past, trade routes were basically used by traders and pilgrims, and there used to be a huge human traffic, contributing to the intense interactions between various religions, beliefs, institutes and cultures.
Today, countries such as China and India are considering re-opening these trade routes. But some Indians are suspicious of Beijing’s Belt and Road initiative. More efforts should be made to revive the ancient trade routes. Relevant mechanisms should also be established to put risks under control, so as to promote the communications between China and South Asia.
Guo Xuetang, professor with Shanghai University of International Business and Economics
There are heated discussions on Trump’s “Indo-Pacific” concept. Some argue that the quadrilateral security dialogues among India, Australia, Japan and the US are intended to contain China’s development, and the concept is an extension of his predecessor Barack Obama’s strategy of rebalancing to the Asia-Pacific region. As a result, they believe Trump’s Indo-Pacific strategy deserves our attention. Anyhow, the US and India are getting increasingly closer.
Competition between China and India in South Asia has long been in focus. While China has put forward the Belt and Road initiative and launched the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, India has been advocating its “Act East” policy to intensify its economic and cultural connections with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and co-launched the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor with Japan to prevent China’s “penetration” into the region.
India has found geopolitical and economic status in recent years. This is a strategic opportunity for New Delhi to gain more leverage in its interactions with Beijing and Washington. But meanwhile, India’s peripheral countries are striving to utilize South Asia’s geopolitics to become more independent, which is a diplomatic challenge to India, but an opportunity for China – it may prompt India to accept China’s cooperation with other South Asian countries. Given the instability of Trump’s Indo-Pacific strategy, South Asia will remain peaceful as a whole, but may see some small-scale conflicts in the future.